Two years ago, Travis Green took over a 69-point National Hockey League team and transformed the Vancouver Canucks into a 73-point team.
One month ago, the Canucks held the last playoff spot in the Western Conference and the team’s improvement during Green’s second season as coach projected to be far more impressive than another four points.
But seven injuries in seven games after the all-star break – on a team without depth to survive them – catapulted the Canucks out of the playoff race and started the 4-10-3 free fall that reached terminal velocity a while ago.
Nine points out with 13 games to go, the Canucks have failed in their pre-season objective to “play meaningful games in March” and need to win six more times just to replicate last year’s modest improvement in the standings. Where did this go wrong again?
Sportsnet sat down Tuesday with Green to ask him:
Sportsnet: How did things come apart so quickly in the last month?
Green: As a coach, you don’t sit there and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go on a bad roll.’ I think we were playing well. I think we surprised some people. But I don’t know if we’re a team that’s capable of sustaining (injuries). With two of our top four D out, that was a huge loss. When you’re in it, as a coach, you’re trying to keep your team in it. So when injuries are piling up, you start playing some guys more minutes out of necessity. And I think that’s a big part of why we’ve lost some games lately.
Sportsnet: So it’s about the injuries, which first piled up in November and led to a 1-10-2 nosedive last fall?
Green: I’ve always said I’m not going to use injuries as an excuse. But if you’re asking me, I think that’s a reason we’ve lost some games.
Sportsnet: When you were in the wild-card race and finally healthy, it looked like you were only a few players away from being able to compete with top teams. In the last couple of weeks, the Canucks have looked miles away from being competitive. So, are you near or far away?
Green: Even at the beginning of the year, I never sat here and said: ‘Our goal is to make the playoffs this year.’ I don’t think I’ve ever said that. Our goal was to get better and try to play some meaningful games down the stretch. Do I think we’ve taken a step? I do. A lot of our young guys are better players than they were. And they’re playing in the hard part of the season. Last season, Hank and Danny (Sedin) were playing bigger minutes at the end of the year, and they made our power play better. This year, our young guys are playing hard minutes and they’re being asked a lot.
How close do I think we are? Our young guys are going to be a year older next season. I want to take a step every year. Point-wise, I don’t know where we’re going to finish. But if we were healthy, I know we’d have a lot more points.
Sportsnet: You probably knew what you were in for when you took the job. But how hard is the losing – being out of it in March – for you?
Green: I think just lately it’s been challenging. The last two weeks it’s been a challenge for me, and I could probably say the same thing for our veteran guys. I’m proud of our guys for putting themselves in the position they were in not long ago. The last 10 days, two weeks, yeah, it’s taken a little wind out of us, and especially for our older guys. They know that winning is everything.
Sportsnet: Young guys don’t take losing as hard?
Green: Everything is new to them. They’re kind of happy-go-lucky. But that’s what we talked about today: You’ve got to be dialled in this time of year. If you’re just going out there to play, you’re going to stick out.
Sportsnet: How do you make them understand these final 13 games still matter?
Green: I spent the last three days kind of getting ready to talk to our group about hockey at this time of year. Now that we’re on the outside looking in, there’s still a lot to play for. Right from Day 1, there was a certain style we wanted to play. We wanted to develop and needed to get better. But if you can’t play at this time of year. . . we’re not going to have the same team back next year.
Sportsnet: You’ve talked often about finding players you can win with. How many have you found?
Green: I haven’t looked at it that way, haven’t tried to put a number on it. We’ve got a lot of young players and they’ll determine whether they’re guys we can win with. Just because you’re playing a lot of minutes right now, doesn’t mean you’ll still be on the team next year. Do you have what it takes to win? We’re always finding out about our group and the next 13 games will tell us a lot more.
Sportsnet: By all accounts, college star Quinn Hughes is going to be a guy you can win with, although perhaps we should actually see him play a few NHL games down the stretch before retiring his number. But if Hughes is as good as expected, and he joins Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser as a core piece, is that a big enough foundation on which to build a team?
Green: They are pieces, but they’re young pieces. And we have to make sure we’re surrounding them with the right other pieces. You look at the teams that are trying to win a Stanley Cup, they’ve got a lot of pieces. Look at Tampa Bay, they lost in the finals four years ago. And they’ve got a lot of the same guys. They even missed the playoffs one year. But they’ve slowly added more pieces, made some trades, and they’re still knocking on the door. We just need to keep getting better.
Sportsnet: Can you expedite the process?
Green: Everyone has their own opinion on that. Part of it is sometimes you get lucky and you get a player that maybe you’re not expecting. But for me it’s: ‘OK, keep your eye on getting better. All the time.’ These last few days have been good for me as well, just to refocus on that.
Sportsnet: It’s tough to argue that your young players, as a group, haven’t gotten better. Players like defencemen Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher, forwards Nikolay Goldobin and Jake Virtanen, even rookie Adam Gaudette, look better than they were at the end of last season. Does that mean your tough-love approach, your willingness to scratch guys, is working?
Green: That’s the only way I know how to coach. Give the players opportunity, and then figure out when it needs to be taken away. Ice time is always a key. If you’re not making your young players better, then you’re not going to get better (as a team). People aren’t always going to like when we do it, but they’re not privy to the conversations we have in here and the messages we send.
People don’t always see why we’re unhappy with a young player and where he needs to improve. Look at a player like Brock Boeser. Everyone talks about the goals and assists. But to me, Brock has gotten a lot better away from the puck. Is he a player you can just slot into a Stanley Cup team? I don’t know, but he’s working on his game and understands he has to get better in certain areas. When you have players who can be honest with themselves and say, ‘Yeah, I have to do that,’ that goes a long way. The onus always goes back to the player.
Sportsnet: Everyone wants Hughes to be a dynamic, offensive player, but will you allow him to make some mistakes playing that way?
Green: I’ve been through it, seen it, been there first-hand as a young player, and coached young players. I don’t talk to Petey (Pettersson) about taking away any part of his offensive game. I’ve told Goldie (Goldobin), ‘I don’t care what you do with the puck in the offensive zone. But if your work ethic and compete level isn’t high enough, then you can’t play.’ And I’ll tell Quinn Hughes the same thing. We need him to be an offensive defenceman. We’ll help him in areas he needs to improve in, but I’m not going to make him a checking defenceman.
Sportsnet: He should help your power play, which is 6-for-76 since Jan. 2. Shouldn’t it be better with Pettersson on one side, Boeser on the other and Horvat in the middle?
Green: There’s not a lot of power plays built on a 20-year-old (Pettersson), a 21-year-old (Boeser), a 23-year-old (Horvat) and your top defenceman (Alex Edler) is out of the lineup for a lot of the season. This is a young power play. There are so many little details in the power play in the NHL that are learned. Even Petey, he’s been good on the power play, but he’s going to be a lot better in two or three years. We also had a lot of production from our second unit last year. I think we had 19 goals from our second unit, so this can’t just fall all on our first unit, either.
Sportsnet: Besides health, what does your lineup need in order to be better next season?
Green: That’s something we’ll answer at the end of the year. We’re a young team that needs to get better in a lot of areas. Keep improving, keep developing and good things will happen.